How To Write When You Have Nothing To Write About

Alex Zalben
Feb 5, 2016 · 6 min read
Credit: Rennett Stowe

Whether they admit it or not, every writer has encountered writer’s block at some point. It might be a mild case where you’re just too tired/too distracted by other tasks. It might be a full-blown case where you’re sitting and staring at a blank page with growing horror, realizing that you’ve officially run out of ideas.

Well, I’m here to tell you that there’s a foolproof method for writing when you have nothing to write that works every single time. It’s a technique that I’ve used for years, and I’ve taught — successfully — to hundreds of students who have encountered the same issue. I hope you’re ready, because here’s my guaranteed method for breaking through writer’s block that works 100% of the time:

If you can’t write anything, then write something.

Put away the pitchforks for a second, please, and I’ll explain. The problem with so-called writer’s block isn’t that you’re bereft of ideas. It’s not called writer’s oblivion; there are always ideas, big and small, lurking in the back of your brain waiting to be put down on paper. It’s called writer’s block because something is preventing those ideas from traveling out of your cerebellum, down your arm, and blooming on your page as beautifully crafted words and ideas.

So the trick to breaking through writer’s block is to open up that passageway, and the only way you’re going to do that is by writing. And I’ve developed a relatively easy technique for doing this that’s a little time intensive, but really does work.

[Note: For the purposes of explaining this, most of my experience is in writing and teaching sketch comedy. So rather than caveating every time I say “sketch” or “scene,” just know that I’ve used this technique for prose and non-fiction writing as well, and it works swimmingly.]

Step 1: Get Out Of The House

This is pretty crucial, but whether it’s going to a local café, an office, or just sitting in the park, make sure you’re not in your house. Your house has your TV, and your books, and your dirty dishes, and that window you like to stare out of, and a million other distractions. You need to get to a place that doesn’t have any of those.

I prefer a café, personally, because there’s a certain pressure to be doing something at a café, in order to justify your continued existence sitting at a table with your laptop or pad of paper.

Wherever you go, though, make sure it’s just you and your writing implement of choice. Which leads us to the next step…

Step 2: Remove All Distractions

Your brain is your enemy. Your brain doesn’t want you to write. It doesn’t want you to break this block, so instead it will do anything in its power to stop the writing process from happening. That means, don’t go to a place with TVs. Don’t go to a place with magazines or newspapers lying around. If you’re writing on a laptop, turn off the Wi-Fi connection so you’re not checking e-mail and Twitter every three minutes. For the love of god, turn off your phone; or even better, leave it at home.

Even though it’s old school, that’s why I prefer to write in these situations with a pen and a pad of paper, because there’s little to no chance I’ll convince myself to turn the Wi-Fi on a pad of paper back on, “just for a second.”

Remember: your brain is your enemy. Do not let the enemy win.

Step 3: Start Writing

Yeah, I know. This is the part that seems stupid, because the whole problem is you can’t write anything. But another part of the reason for heading to a public place to write is to give you new things to write about. And that’s what you have to do, just start writing. About anything. Don’t worry about the quality, or the cohesion, or the idea, or anything. Just start writing down the first thing that comes to mind.

I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been bereft of ideas, used this technique, and started writing a sketch that opened:

[Scene is a café. Alex is sitting at a table in the café, sipping coffee. He has no sketch ideas.]

…And then I would just start writing about whoever was sitting across from me, or the cup of coffee I was looking at, or just create a meta-scene about a guy who has no ideas.

I’ll say this in the nicest way possible: this sketch will be terrible. Like, unreadable, unperformable, just straight up bad. That said, don’t stop writing it at any point, because you’re about to…

Step 4: Have An Idea (But Don’t Stop Writing)

At some point writing this terrible sketch, you’re going to have a second (or let’s be honest, first) idea. Do not, under any circumstances, stop writing the sketch you are currently writing. I’ll explain why in a second.

In the meantime, immediately jot the idea you just had down in the margin of your paper, or in a new text document, or wherever you won’t forget about it later.

Then, keep writing your sketch, and bring it to it’s natural, probably still terrible, conclusion. The reason for doing this? Remember, your brain is your enemy. Part of the reason you got in this situation in the first place is that you somehow trained your brain to not want to write. What we’re trying to do is retrain your brain (brainwash it, if you will) to become a mean writing machine again. When you don’t finish the idea you’re working on, what you’re doing is getting your brain in the mode of not finishing things, which will lead right back to your original, writer’s blocked state.

The bonus is that even if this sketch is terrible (and it will be), there may be one joke, one line, one spark of an idea that isn’t terrible that you, or someone in your group/a friend will discover later. I would always bring these terrible sketches in to my group to read, mostly because it gave me something extra to read so it seemed like I had a really prolific week; but also because of the surprising discovery of an idea I didn’t know was in there; which happened more often than you’d expect.

Step 5: Write Idea #2

Okay, so you’ve finished that first (really, really terrible) sketch. Now it’s time to go back to that idea you jotted down in the margin. Since you’ve already warmed up a bit, you should be able to tackle this idea in a slightly more calculated way.

This sketch will be terrible.

Forget I said this on the day you’re writing, because it’ll feel like this second piece of writing is a step up — and it is — but it’s still gonna be pretty bad. Your brain just isn’t read yet to give you the real primo cuts.

You can probably see where this is going by now, but halfway through writing this (slightly less terrible) sketch, you’ll have another idea. Jot in down in the margin. Finish the sketch you’re writing.

Step 6: Write Idea #3

And here is where you’ve finally broken through the writer’s block! Your brain is warmed up and retrained, the passage to greatness has been opened, and the main impediment — that you thought you would never write again and were a total idea-less loser — has been proven incorrect by the two previous sketches you wrote.

Now, you’re ready to tackle that third idea, which will be the actually good one with some merit to it. The good news is, you also have two other finished pieces, for a total of three scenes that will all (probably) need some work… But that’s three more than you thought you’d have when you thought your career was over earlier in the day.

So there you go. That’s why I said if you can’t write anything, just write something. Because you can always write something. Always. It may not be good, and it may even be straight up bad. But you always have the ability to write, you just need to trick your horrible brain into letting that writing out.

Alex Zalben

Written by

Author of “Thor And The Warriors Four” for Marvel. Comic Book Club Live! for Nerdist. Sketch comedy with Elephant Larry. Formerly MTV News/UGO/AMC. Other stuff.

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